D. W. Griffith

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2011

D. W. Griffith 1875-1948

(Full name David Wark Griffith) American filmmaker.

As the first filmmaker to exploit the potential of film editing to convey the impression of simultaneous action, and for his promotion of a style of acting and innovative uses of the camera that suited the representation of character psychology, Griffith is generally acknowledged by scholars and critics as the most influential figure in film history. Exemplified in his epic silent movies The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), his techniques were copied and refined by the majority of filmmakers in the United States and Europe, and were closely studied by Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and other directors in pre- and post-revolutionary Russia. Most critics note, however, that as a storyteller Griffith was prone to bombastic thematic pretension, sentimentality, and was capable of only pedestrian insight. Moreover, The Birth of a Nation, which is often considered the apotheosis of his technical achievement, can no longer be shown outside of academic settings because it is blatantly racist, depicting blacks as either buffoons or savages and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. For these reasons, modern critical attention tends to focus on two areas of his career: the early, formative period from 1908 through 1913 when he made over 480 short films for the Biograph Company; and the later phase that included important yet less well-known works such as Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Isn't Life Wonderful (1924).

Biographical Information

Griffith was born in Oldham County, Kentucky, to parents whose families had been in the United States since the revolutionary period. His father, Jacob, was a doctor who participated in the California Gold Rush, was a member of the Kentucky legislature, and, prior to the Civil War—in which he served as an officer in the Confederate cavalry—had been a prosperous slave owner with a large plantation. With the family's fortunes greatly diminished after the war, Griffith was born into impoverished circumstances. His father died in 1882 and his mother moved the family to Louisville where she ran a boarding house. Griffith, who never finished high school because of his obligation to help support the family, had decided early in life to be a writer; his temperament and personality, however, led him to pursue the more social and flamboyant art of stage acting. He joined a travelling theatrical company in 1895, and for the following ten years made a meager living acting and holding odd jobs. In 1906 he married his first wife, the actress Linda Arvidson, who later appeared in many of his films. After the marginal success in Washington, D. C. and Baltimore of a play he wrote called A Fool and a Girl (1907), Griffith moved to New York City to resume acting. There he began selling story ideas to various motion picture companies—which at the time were located primarily in that city—and in 1908 he was hired by the Edison Company to act in two films, Cupid's Pranks and Rescued from an Eagle's Nest; the latter was directed by Edwin S. Porter, director of two much-studied films, Life of an American Fireman (1902-1903) and The Great Train Robbery (1903). He was then hired by the Biograph Company as a writer and actor. He appeared in at least twenty films before June, 1908, when he was given the opportunity to direct a film, The Adventures of Dollie. He became Biograph's principal director, and in the next five years he made over 480 short, very popular films. In this time, because of the success of his work, Griffith gained increasing control over the major aspects of film production at Biograph, from writing, casting, and editing to promotion. In 1913, when the owners of Biograph rejected his demands to make longer, more elaborate, and thus more expensive films, Griffith left the company, taking with him his cameraman, G. W. "Billy" Bitzer, and several of his favorite actors, including Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, and Henry B. Walthall. Relocated in Southern California, Griffith made several films for the Reliance-Majestic company and raised money for The Birth of a Nation. This film generated significant controversy upon its release—the protests of a number of black groups and prominent critics impelled Griffith to write a pamphlet, The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America (1915), defending himself and the movie against charges of racism. Nonetheless, The Birth of a Nation was widely hailed as "the greatest film ever made." Its success enabled Griffith to make the grandly elaborate Intolerance, a two-and-a-half hour film presenting four intertwined historical dramas and employing massive, spectacular sets and hundreds of extras. Although it drew big crowds upon its release and soon after, audiences quickly dwindled as word spread that its four-part structure was confusing. The film was a financial failure and marked the beginning of a gradual decline in Griffith's ability to dictate the terms of his career. In 1919, Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin formed United Artists, a production company designed to give them the freedom they felt they were losing in the face of the growing, consolidating, and realigning film industry. Griffith's first film released by United Artists was Broken Blossoms. Seeking even greater independence, he moved his troupe of actors and technicians out of California to Mamaroneck, New York, where he bought an estate that he turned into a film studio. Facing financial difficulties, Griffith quickly made several lesser films in order to allow the filming of Way Down East, which has endured as one of his best works. But continuing and increasing financial problems made it impossible for Griffith to exercise the control over his productions that he once enjoyed. Even with United Artists he was assigned films to make and was overseen by producers wary of his profligate tendencies. After Isn't Life Wonderful, Griffith made largely unremarkable films, save for Abraham Lincoln (1930), his first film with synchronized sound and featuring Walter Huston in the title role. His last film, The Struggle (1931), a melodrama about an alcoholic, impressed neither critics nor audiences. For the next seventeen years, Griffith could not find backers willing to fund his projects; he was offered work and tributes by friends—the director George Cukor unsuccessfully petitioned the owners of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to "pension" him for his contributions to the art of film—but Griffith declined what he felt to be charity. He died in Hollywood in 1948.

Major Works

By the standards of its day, Griffith's first film as director, The Adventures of Dollie, is typical, well-made, and evidence of the first-time filmmaker's mastery of contemporary film form. In a series of linked vignettes, each consisting of one shot, the film presents the story of a little girl who is kidnapped by an evil gypsy; when the girl's father searches for her at the gypsy camp, she is spirited away in a barrel; the barrel eventually falls into a river and Dollie is carried back to her home. In plot and premise, The Adventures of Dollie is typical of many of Griffith's subsequent Biograph films: a tranquil, bourgeois domestic situation is upset; daring measures are undertaken in response; and tranquility is restored. Over the course of his next 480 or so films, Griffith experimented with ways in which to heighten the viewer's identification with the characters' experiences and states of mind. Among the innovations evident in his Biograph films are: 1) the increased and refined use of point-of-view shots, in which the viewer sees what the character sees; an early example of this occurs in Griffith's second film, The Redman and the Child (1908), when an Indian witnesses a murder through a telescope; 2) an increasingly restrained and naturalistic style of acting, one that eschewed the broad gestures of the nineteenth-century "histrionic" style; among the many films in which this new style dominates, The New York Hat (1912) is often cited because the subtle performances of Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore contrast strikingly with the more demonstrative and obviously stylized actions of the rest of the cast; and 3) the use of what has been called "switchback" or "parallel" editing, by means of which two or more events taking place in different locations are presented as occurring simultaneously; Griffith—and most filmmakers after him—used this technique in a variety of ways: from increasing the suspense in a "last minute rescue" sequence, as in The Lonely Villa (1909) when a man must race home to prevent criminals from attacking his wife and daughters; to the breaking down of individual scenes into numerous closer and more detailed shots, a technique that creates a "synthetic" space, one that exists as a unified whole only in the viewer's imagination. All of these innovations were adopted by other filmmakers and came to be hallmarks of the Hollywood style. Critics argue, however, that Griffith's own style should not be thought of as synonymous with the "classic realist text" of Hollywood, that his films characteristically employ devices that distance the viewer and prevent the kind of identification and "suspension of disbelief" thought typical of Hollywood. A case in point is The Birth of a Nation, the Civil War saga that tells the story of two families—one from the North, one from the South. While the film deploys the realistic techniques mentioned above, and is often described as the culmination of Griffith's experiments in the "narrative integration" of such techniques, the film also explicitly re-creates famous paintings and photographs—for example, those of Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation—and identifies these recreations as such on screen. Thus, The Birth of a Nation combines two modes of addressing the viewer: one that tries to efface itself through realistic techniques designed to heighten the viewer's identification with the action on screen; and one that calls attention to itself, addressing the viewer directly and reminding him of the unreality of the depicted events. The first mode—which Griffith did not invent, only refined and exploited on a grand scale—became the dominant one for narrative filmmaking; the second—which was, in fact, the dominant mode of early cinema, before "narrative integration"—influenced Eisenstein and the Soviet filmmakers who were interested in a more didactic approach to film form. This dual approach is also evident in Intolerance, an epic film that intertwines four stories: a tale set in the film's present day that depicts what happens when upper-class matrons crusade to "refine" the lower classes; the massacre of the Huguenots; the fall of Babylon; and the life of Jesus. Griffith continuously cuts from one story to another, inviting the viewer to, at once, get caught up in each individual story and set of characters, and to draw thematic, moralistic connections between them. Because of this alternation between identification and intellectual distance, Eisenstein is reported to have been surprised to learn that Griffith was not a communist—so much did this approach mirror and influence his own. Griffith's other major films—including Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms, True Heart Susie (1919), and Way Down East—emphasize melodrama over didacticism and are romantic, tragic visions of ill-fated love. In criticizing the thematic content of Griffith's films, Eisenstein wrote: "In social attitudes Griffith was always a liberal, never departing far from the slightly sentimental humanism of the good old gentlemen and sweet old ladies of Victorian England, just as Dickens loved to picture them. His tender-hearted film morals go no higher than a level of Christian accusation of human injustice and nowhere in his films is there sounded a protest against social injustice." Finally, Orson Welles once wrote that, toward the end of his life, Griffith "was an exile in his own town, a prophet without honor, a craftsman without tools, an artist without work. No wonder he hated me. I, who knew nothing about films, had just been given the greatest freedom ever written into a Hollywood contract [when he was hired by RKO to make Citizen Kane (1941)]. It was the contract he deserved.… I never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D. W. Griffith. No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man. Every filmmaker who has followed him has done just that: followed him."

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*Principal Works